Bobby Cox: Best of our generation
His tenure with the Braves is a lesson in the value of loyalty and dependability
Manager of the Era.
There's no such award, of course. And I'm in no way advocating for baseball to add yet another piece of dust-collecting hardware to its already expansive list of accolades.
But if there were such a laurel, it should be bestowed upon Bobby Cox, the Buddha-like curmudgeon who's been sitting at the front end of the bench in the Atlanta Braves' dugout for what seems like forever.
The guy who reminds us why late-age men shouldn't wear body-hugging baseball uniforms.
The guy who has taxed more nerves of more umpires than anyone else in the game's history.
The guy who has been the best manager in baseball pretty much since I got out of college more than three decades ago.
Cox says he's retiring at the end of this season. He'll walk away with that gimpy gait after 29 years as a major league manager, the past quarter-century with the Braves. He's won 15 divisional titles (14 straight during one remarkable run; no one counts the strike-tainted 1994 season, which ended in August with the Braves in second place), five National League pennants and a World Series championship.
He won't retire as baseball's winningest manager -- Connie Mack managed for 53 seasons, after all -- and some will certainly argue that this fictitious Manager of the Era Award should go to Joe Torre. Or Tony La Russa. Or maybe Sparky Anderson. All four men are in baseball's all-time top 10 in victories. As the season gets underway again Thursday night after the All-Star break, La Russa is third overall with 2,599 wins, Cox is fourth (2,465) and Torre is fifth (2,295). Hall of Famer Anderson, who retired in 1995, is sixth with 2,194 wins. (Though he trails this bunch in wins by a wide margin -- he has 1,460 as the Tigers begin the second half of the season -- Jim Leyland's three Manager of the Year awards, two pennants and one World Series title earn him at least a mention in this discussion, too.)
Torre, with four World Series titles and six American League pennants, is the era's trophy king. But it's my award, and I'm going with Cox.
I like him because he's steady and unwavering, because he likes his players (or at least makes us think he does) and because he might be the last of a breed. Managers who last almost a lifetime in one gig are all but extinct, not just in baseball but in all of today's fire-first, think-later sports culture. Managers and coaches seem to be sacrificed on a whim when the true culprit responsible for a team's poor performance more often than not is weak front-office work or simple bad luck.
Atlanta was the perfect place for the perfect man, though the Braves didn't know it for a while after Cox arrived in 1978 for his managerial debut. The team had endured back-to-back last-place seasons in 1976 and 1977; Cox immediately led the abysmal Braves to two more consecutive last-place finishes. In his first four years, his overall record was 266-323 (.452).
He was fired.
Of course, the caveat is that he was fired by Ted Turner, the combustible then-owner. When asked who was on his list for replacements, Turner told reporters: "It would be Bobby Cox, if I hadn't just fired him. We need someone like him around here."
Nine seasons (for four of them, Cox managed the Toronto Blue Jays) and five Braves managers later, Cox was around again in Atlanta; and this time, he didn't leave.
Not even after his string of division titles ended four years ago as the Braves slumped to 79-83 in 2006. They haven't reached the postseason since 2005 or been in the World Series since 1999.
In almost any other city, he would have been fired long ago. Already this baseball season, the Royals have fired Trey Hillman, the Orioles have axed Dave Trembley and the Marlins have canned Fredi Gonzalez. All of them were hired after Cox and the Braves stopped winning.
Since that last playoff appearance in 2005, the Braves haven't finished above third place in the NL East, and many Atlanta fans have clamored for the team to replace Cox with someone younger, more "relatable" to today's players and game.
Instead, the Braves retooled around him, adding the kind of pitching (anchored by Tim Hudson, who leads the team in wins) that once characterized the franchise. This season, they are riding the maturation of veterans such as Martin Prado, the NL's leading hitter (.325), and catcher Brian McCann, hero of the NL's 3-1 All-Star Game win; and in Jason Heyward they are nurturing a prodigious young talent the likes of which the franchise maybe hasn't seen since Dale Murphy.
And for the second half, they just added power-hitting shortstop Alex Gonzalez (17 home runs), the centerpiece of Wednesday's five-player trade with Toronto.
Suddenly, a man not long ago deemed by many to be past his prime, a jalopy in the fast lane, is a baseball genius. Again. Fresh from winning two of three against the division-rival New York Mets prior to the All-Star break, the Braves are atop the NL East with the third-best record (52-36) in baseball. They open the second half at home against Milwaukee on Thursday night.
The team should be well-stocked for Cox's successor. Replacing an iconic manager typically is an all-lose proposition, made all the more difficult because it looks as if Cox will be leaving on a high note. The Tigers were a woeful 60-84 during Anderson's final season, in 1995. They churned through five managers before they reached the playoffs again in 2006 under, yes, Leyland.
Speculation in Atlanta centers on former Braves third baseman and current hitting coach Terry Pendleton, as well as Jose Oquendo of the St. Louis Cardinals and Gonzalez, a Cox protege and former Braves third-base coach.
There's a lesson in Bobby Cox's long-lived tenure the rest of sports should embrace as his era nears its end. Lessons, in fact.
But it seems no one is listening.
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